The back of her neck crawled with the sensation of being watched. She should not have gone into the forest alone.
This one took me a couple of tries to get it to work. Sometimes you have to write it wrong before you write it right, you know? Anyway, I’m still not satisfied that Alek and Solenne’s meeting has enough sizzle. I want to be able to cute the tension with a knife! But that’s the charm of the alpha draft. It’s not perfect and I have a notebook filled with the things I don’t like that I need to fix when it’s time to revise.
Repetition. Repetition. Repetition.
Four days until the full moon.
Solenne drew the bow and waited. A twig cracked. She spun and released. The arrow planted itself into the tree and the rabbit hopped away.
She had not greatly improved in the last few days but forcing her body to remember what it once knew through stubborn determination helped. Muscle memory unlocked. Skulking through the forest, forced to act fast, also helped. If she thought too much, she favored her wrist and her stance went wrong and she used the wrong set of muscles entirely. Hunting rabbits forced her to move on instinct before she got too in her head. Her aim had improved, even if she still had not hit a rabbit.
Sunlight filtered through the forest’s canopy, creating pools of shadows. She waited. Listened to the sound of birdsong. The wind made a lovely spring melody with insects buzzing.
This was a waste of time. She could not hunt alongside Luis in four days and she’d never hit the cursed wolf unless she walked up to it and stabbed it with a silver-tipped arrow. As it stood, she was a liability. Her time would have been better spent preparing tonics and salves. Boil bandages so they were fresh and sterile. How much string did she have for stitching? She loathed dragging needle and thread through flesh but if Luis needed it, she’d do it. Willow bark for pain and to reduce a fever? She could always use more.
If Luis failed to trap the wolf, if he suffered a severe injury, Godwin would have no choice but to contact the provincial government for support. Familial pride would smart and they might lose their home, but too many lives were in danger. The people of Boxon and the valley deserved to live without fear of the monsters that prowled the dark.
Alek said he would come.
Four days until the full moon.
A twig snapped. Solenne finally noticed the stillness in the air. Birdsong had vanished. Even the insects retreated.
Solenne notched an arrow and held the bow at ready. It was not uncommon for a cursed creature to feel the pull of the nexus as the moon approached its zenith. They were known to give in early to the shift and prowl the territory outside their den, which is why she was by herself and not with her brother. Luis searched for signs of the wolf and its den.
The back of her neck crawled with the sensation of being watched. She should not have gone into the forest alone. She should have stuck with hay bales for target practice.
Carefully, she picked her way through the undergrowth, back to a deer trail, and toward the old cottage. She’d run for the safety of the building if need be. The door should hold. Either the wolf would grow bored when it realized she was locked up tight and leave, or someone in the house would realize she was missing. Travers, most likely. He always seemed to know where she was, especially when she was somewhere she wasn’t meant to be.
Reach the cottage. She’d be safe in the cottage.
The undergrowth thinned. Sunlight broke through the canopy of leaves. The cottage sat half in shadow, half in the sun. The light made the golden stones glow against the darkness of the surrounding forest.
She had never seen anything so inviting.
A growl came to her ears. Solenne spun, bow drawn and ready to fire.
A man held up his hands in surrender. He stepped back, holding his hands up. “I did not intend to startle you,” he said.
“Who are you?” She kept the arrow trained on the man. Only a few feet separated them and she felt confident that even she could hit him at this range.
Several days’ beard growth covered his face. Dust and dirt covered him, like he had rolled in the mud. Dark circles hung under his eyes. Hair had been pulled back to keep it tidy, but it mostly escaped in a tangled mess. He appeared thin, in need of a hearty meal and good night’s rest. Those things were hard to get on the road, Solenne understood, especially as far out on the edge of civilization as they were.
More than the man’s desperate need for a thorough scrubbing and a haircut, menace dripped off him. He stood with a predator’s stance, despite his submissive gestures, watching his prey.
“A traveler,” he said. The horse munching on leaves behind him supported that. “I stopped at the well for water.”
“We’re nowhere near the main road and no one knows about the cottage and the well.” Practically no one and if they did, no one with sense would use it. That was why the cottage remained empty. “Try again,” she ordered.
A look of amusement flashed across his face. An unsettling grin of sharp white teeth spread across his tan, weathered skin. “Well, to be perfectly honest, I thought I might wash up. I am a slave to vanity.”
“Water your horse and fill your canteen, then be on your way.” She waved the bow toward the well but did not lower it.
“I heard the Marechals welcomed travelers at their hearth. Does that kindness not extend to the water of your wells, Miss Marechal?” His words had the ring of familiarity yet she did not know this man.
Solenne lowered the bow. “The roads here are not easy to travel. You are welcomed to stay the night in the cottage.”
“Easy? No. I can’t claim it’s been an easy journey.”
Nor an easy few years, judging by the state of him. Everything about his travel-worn appearance still held, but she noticed the lines on his brows and the exhaustion in his face. He seemed thinner and in a way that was more than lean and pointed toward illness.
“You can wash up if you don’t mind cold water,” she said and headed for the cottage. Inside, she pointed to the tub and soap.
“Using this for storage? Seems a waste,” the man said. He stood uncomfortably close as he looked about the one room, making no motion to retrieve the tub.
She shivered and moved a hand to her silver blade. Menace rolled off the man. “It’s built to last, but no one is brave enough to live out here on their own.”
“I understand this region does have a wolf problem.” He grinned, somehow bearing more teeth than should be possible.
She tapped the flat of her blade against the cake of soap. His eyes followed the movement. “Just a small suggestion. You smell.”
“So do you, Solenne.” That grin reappeared, sharp and unsettling.
She elected to carry her equipment back to the big house, rather than spend one more moment with the rude man. Once she reached the cottage’s gate, she turned to shout, “Come to the kitchen in the back of the main house if you want a meal.”
The man had already pumped water from the well into the tub. First, he allowed his horse to drink its fill. Sunlight picked out the golden highlights in his brown hair.
Then he removed his shirt.
Lean muscles flexed in the sun. The man had a large frame but hardship made him lean enough to count his ribs. On his chest, over his heart, was a simple tattoo in grey ink, a circle surrounded by a burst of rays.
Sunlight, her name sake. She didn’t know why her breath flustered in her chest because the man was a stranger and the tattoo held no significance.
Pale scars stood out against his flesh, crisscrossing his belly and back. They whispered of a life of pain and danger. A fierce bite stood out on his shoulder, looking almost fresh and unhealed. What monsters did that to him? Despite the scars, despite the ribs standing out, he had strength yet in his body.
She pressed a hand to her chest and swore that he smirked.
He dunked his head in the tub. Head wet, water rolled down his chest, rinsing away dust and grime.
Solenne slammed the gate closed, her cheeks burning. “I trust you can find the big house,” she said, barely pausing for him to answer.
This was dangerous. She invited a dangerous stranger into her home.
He watched Solenne scurry away, delighted at the obvious discomfort in her tone, and even more delighted in how her trousers clung to the curves of her ass.
He remained enough of a gentleman that he did not express his appreciation. Unfortunately, he was not enough of a gentleman to avert his eyes. He had a wicked beast inside him.
Wash complete, he returned the tub to its peg on the wall of the cottage. Other than the air of neglect, the building had not changed in the last decade. The roof was sound and the walls were sturdy enough to keep out monsters. Or keep one contained.
Being so close to Solenne, catching her delicious scent, riled his beast. She did not recognize him which stung but her delicious small helped to ease the hurt. He had purposefully removed his shirt, knowing she watched. She had no comment on the bite. This close to the full moon and the nexus, the bite was red and raw. He suspected that she only failed to recognize the bite for what it was because she felt the same disorienting attraction as he.
Godwin would recognize the bite at once.
Very well. He’d try his best to remain clothed in the presence of his old mentor. In a few days, as the moon waned, the bite would look as unremarkable as of the other scars on his person.
In a wooden chest, he found a medical kit stocked with wolfsbane. He took the bottle and a few more useful-looking tonics. The wolfsbane would be enough to keep him under control for this cycle.
He had such a clever mate.
Copyright 2020 Nancey Cummings
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